Funky flavours, left-field labels, a new vocabulary of terms, and blends you’ve never heard of. If you’ve been to a good bottle shop or a trendy bar recently you’ve probably noticed a number of new wines appearing which look, sound, and taste like nothing you’ve tried before. The world of natural, minimal intervention, and lo-fi wines is steadily finding a foothold in Perth, and to demystify these new styles, techniques and labels we got together with Budburst’s owner and sommelier Rachael Niall along with winemakers Matt of Freehand Wine, Yoko of Brave New Wine and Michael of Yelland & Papps.
What is Natural Wine?
Natural wines actually follow a specific set of conventions, Rachael told us that "In the most simple way, Natural wine is wine from organic or biodynamic grapes, made in a way where nothing is added and nothing is taken away. This means no chemicals are used in the vineyard, no inoculated yeast is used for fermentation, there is no filtration or fining agents, and absolutely no added sulphur (traces of sulphur will arise naturally). There is not yet a legal definition for natural wines, but I find the 'Charter of Quality' for the RAW Wine Fair to be the best guide on restrictions and allowances ” The resulting wines can be said to have a vitality and a liveliness which can’t be found anywhere else.
Matt of Freehand Wine says he saw Biodynamic viticulture as the next step forward in their winemaking back in 2008, and that Natural Winemaking practices followed shortly after. "The main benefit to Natural Wine has to be transparency of process.” Matt told us, "Nothing added means nothing but grape juice. This will always produce fresher, more unique, honest, interesting and seasonal wines (if the fruit is good!). Every Natural Wine is an individual."
"The inherent and essential "small batch" nature of NW precludes the economies of scale that larger-batch wineries operate with. We all know handmade looks, feels and tastes better. Wine is no different.” Said Matt.
Natural Wine may look like a new fringe movement, but Yoko of Brave New Wine was quick to point out that many of the practices are the original methods and processes for wine, "Nothing we do in the winery is anything new, really. That’s the thing about this move toward lo-fi. Minimum input winemaking is just a return to age-old technique."
Natural, Minimal Intervention, Lo-fi, oh my!
Since Natural Winemaking follows a pretty strict set of conditions, the term is often used as an umbrella which includes wines which adhere to most but not all of these rules, wines which use biodynamic fruit, wild yeast, and only a small amount of sulphur at the bottling stage can be called Minimal Intervention, Small Batch or Lo-fi wines.
"There’s a very blurred line between minimal intervention and natural wines,” Said Rachael "minimal intervention wines follow the process of no additions and nothing taken away, but the winemaker will still add some sulphur at the time of bottling just for preservation. Most of the wines here at Budburst are made in this way.”
Of the Winemakers we spoke to, Matt told us that Freehand self-identified as Natural Wine, telling us "Freehand wines are made with zero adds, in small batches from fruit we grew in our vineyard with help from biodynamic preps, picked on fruit days and bottled without any manipulation either minimal or otherwise.”
Yoko was more reserved, and whilst many wines from Brave New Wine are often placed amongst Natural Wines in bottle shops and wine lists, they do not use the label: "We sit somewhere in the middle, and have rarely felt comfortable calling ourselves “natural’ wine makers. We prefer the term lo-fi. Some of the vineyards we source from are managed organically, some are handled conventionally, we use some new oak, and we add minimal sulphites to our wines.”
Also different but sometimes included under the same umbrella are owner-operator wine labels: Wineries and wines which are singular, personal expressions by winemakers. Michael of Yelland & Papps makes wonderful and highly regarded wines, half of which are made in a minimal intervention style, and half which have added tartaric acid depending on vintage conditions. "We are not pigeon holed into any category,” said Michael, "we just do what is needed to make the style of wines we love.” For Michael, the additions of sulphur and acid to some of their wines has “Minimal cost,” explaining that, “for us, the benefits in using SO2 and Tartaric Acid are to contribute to making clean, balanced wines that are enjoyable to drink now or in 5-10 years time,” Their experimentation with new techniques, varietals and styles is a great example that the growing increase in natural wine production is not an ends in itself, but a larger trend toward high quality, bespoke and interesting wines for everyday consumption.
Aversions to Sulphur
The most noteworthy and the most contested aspect of Natural winemaking is the addition of Sulphur. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a preservative used in winemaking first explicitly mentioned in 1487. Sulphur kills yeasts and bacteria and protects wine from oxidation, and is used extensively in conventional winemaking in order to avoid potential for spoilage.
Rachael didn’t tell us that sulphur was expressly a bad thing in wine, "Whilst I prefer lofi wines, I'm not anti-sulphur by any means. If I owned a vineyard and had one time each year to make wine, I'm not sure I'd have the guts to go 100% natural, it's risky." However, she was quick to point out that things can get excessive, “Some companies use sulphur before you even get into the winery, they’ll pick and put all the grapes into big buckets and sprinkle sulphur straight away. Then sulphur can then be added before pressing, after pressing, at the end of fermentation, and at bottling.”
Excessive use of sulphur is detectable in the wine, Rachael told us "Anyone who works with wine can smell sulphur straight away, it generally overpowers the fruit, and you'll often hear people say ‘this smells like a headache'.” Other issues are more ideological, Rachael says people often liken natural wine to a living creature, and in using excessive sulphur you’re “Changing the true nature of the wine.”
Sulphur is not all bad however, and in small quantities can be useful or even essential in preventing spoilage. Most minimal intervention winemakers will use no sulphur throughout the vinification process, and only add a tiny amount at the point of bottling. This gives the wines a better ageing potential, and lessens the risk of any unwanted flavours or faults developing in the bottle.
Redefining Wine ‘Flaws’
Alongside using less sulphur, natural winemakers have begun reinterpreting the conventional perceptions toward flaws in winemaking. Flaws including cloudiness and oxidisation, and as far as more challenging flaws like Brettanomyces and Volatile Acidity.
Rachael can recall a number of instances throughout her career as a sommelier and bar owner where cloudiness has been unjustly perceived as a flaw. In one case, a patron at a restaurant she worked at insisted that a very expensive wine was faulty because it was not clear. The wine tasted perfect, and Rachael knew it was exactly as the winemaker had intended, but the patron could not be convinced. In another instance she saw a wine professional dismiss a local winemaker’s range before anyone had even tasted it.
Cloudiness comes from a lack of fining and filtration, processes which strip the wine of insoluble matter. In some times this is helpful and even necessary, but the cost is that flavour and character can be lost in the process. Fining processes such as filtration through egg whites or fish bladders, besides sounding a little unpleasant, can also make the wine unfriendly to vegans.
Oxidisation is another redefined flaw which Rachael finds particularly interesting. Oxidisation can come from from the winemaker deciding not to top up the wine in their barrels as it begins to evaporate, or the wine can be forcibly exposed to oxygen. The resulting wines can be citrusy, salty, and even briny. Sherry is made in this way and people often taste ‘sherry characteristics’.
"I feel like there’s a bit more leeway for how much oxidisation can be seen as a positive attribute. From a venue point of view, they can stay fresher for longer. Because they’ve already had a bit of exposure to oxygen, they stay at a similar level of freshness and don’t fall over as quickly as wines which are made with a lot of sulphur and fermented in stainless steel. For example, Sam Vincuillo’s wines can be open for three weeks, they’ll change in that time but not in a negative way.” If you’re a slow drinker like us, the prospect of a wine which will last weeks rather than days once opened is a huge selling point.
Exciting New Styles
"I feel like people have become more confident in their drinking choices over the last few years. Rather than wait for someone to tell them what they “should be drinking” according to a medal in a wine show, or points given by a wine writer, or some preconception (“I don’t drink chardonnay” for eg), they are now happy to try a wine and make their own mind up. Is it fucking delicious? Am I enjoying it? Is this wine inspiring some hearty conversation? If the answer is yes, then the wine is a goer! People will drink unfiltered, chunky wine. People will drink fizzy, funky wine. People will drink whole bunchy, spicy, reds. People will drink skinsy white wines made very much like red wines. IF. They are delicious.” - Yoko
Whilst very little in Natural and Lofi Winemaking is truly new, the movement has shone a light on a number of interesting and lesser-known styles, including:
“What is orange wine? Orange wine is delicious”, said Rachael. The skin contact wine is like a reverse rose, made by putting white wine through the processes generally reserved for red wine. The extended contact between the grape juice and it’s skins in orange wine gives the wine phenolics, texture, tannin and colour. Think red wine mouthfeel with unmistakable white wine flavours. "Like any method, there are certain levels which you can pull back from,” Said Rachael, You can have skin contact ranging from a few hours to forty days.”
Whilst we love a typical, funky orange wine, one of our favourite styles made by natural and minimal intervention winemakers are the white wines with just a small kiss of skin contact, making for a heavier, funkier and overall delicious white wine.
Pétillant-naturel is a method for sparkling wine which predates Champagne. Where in champagne a second fermentation is induced by introducing more sugar and yeast to fully fermented wine, Pet Nat is made by bottling wine before the primary fermentation has ended. The yeast continues to create alcohol and carbon dioxide in the pressurised environment of the bottle, and it is up to the winemaker to decide whether to disgorge the residual lees or to leave them in the bottle (Lees are the leftover particles from yeast, they are harmless to drink and can give wine texture and a toasty aroma). Since the fermentation has finished in bottle, Pet Nats are by definition unfined and unfiltered.
Despite being older, we think of Pet Nat as a funky younger sibling to Champagne. Losing some points in refinement but making them all up in being bold, fruity, and fun. Look for their trademark crown seal, and drink Pet Nat on the porch on a warm summer’s day.
Blending is nothing new in either conventional or minimal intervention winemaking, but smaller winemakers have experimented with new and lesser known blends. Examples include L.A.S Vino’s Albino Pinot, a flip of the 80/20 ratio of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which defines most champagnes, pressed into a clear, rosé style wine and botanical infusions like Brave New Wine's Wonderland and Dreamland botanical rieslings. The Wonderland riesling infused with native West Australian botanicals is exciting, bright and like nothing else in the market, and won them the Danger Zone award for ‘Most Adventurous Wine' at the 2017 Young Gun of Wine Awards.
Where to Start
If we’ve piqued your interest, you’re probably wondering where to start. The strong flavours from unfiltered wines may be surprising at first, so we find trying a bunch of wines at once to be a great start. Natural Wines really stand out amongst other wines and each other, so tasting events like the Budburst Wine Parties are a great place to start.
We love the whole range from the three producers we’ve featured, but our favourites are the Semillon from Freehand Wine, the 'Pi Oui' Pinot Noir from Brave New Wine, and whilst not a self-identifying minimal intervention wine, we think every wine fan should stock a bottle of Yelland & Papps’ Pinot Blanc, a white wine which suits any company and occasion.
Both Freehand and Brave New Wine put out delicious Pet Nats, and Brave New Wine make our favourite orange wine in their ‘Klusterphunk’ Chardonnay.
Rachael’s picks for Natural Wines were the ranges from Sam Vincuillo in Margaret River, and from Latta in Victoria. Budburst showcase great Natural and Minimal Intervention wines by the glass and the bottle. We also love picking up wine for home from The Re Store, The Wine Thief, and Mane Liqour.
Budburst are located in 406 Oxford St, Mount Hawthorn and open from 4pm until Midnight Tuesday-Saturday. Look for Brave New Wine, Yelland & Papps, and Freehand wine at good bottle shops, bars and restaurants.